by Quinn Levandoski
reviewed on PC
Short But Sweet
While I certainly appreciate adventures that provide dozens, or even hundreds of hours of content for me to enjoy, as I’ve gotten older and adopted the responsibilities of life that comes along with age I’ve experienced a blossoming in my respect for games that tell a short, coherent, enjoyable experience over a shorter run time. NORTH, a mysterious walking/light puzzle game by developer Outlands, fits right into that category, delivering a fairly compelling, if not technically messy, campaign that you can play from start to finish in under an hour.
In NORTH, you play an unidentified thing (Alien? Human? To be honest, I still don’t know...) that’s just arrived in a big metropolitan city in the north to escape the hardships and abusive living conditions in the south. As you traverse through three floors of the city block in which the game takes place to try and earn your citizenship and work through light puzzles, you’ll write home to your sister explaining the good and not so good things about life in your new home. You’ll spend your time figuring out what to do in places like a police station, your apartment, the immigration office, and more, and each time you’ll write your sister (which also acts as your hint for what to do next). From a gameplay standpoint, there really isn’t a ton to do except for walk around and clock on a few things in the right order.
Except for the end, everything is pretty straightforward and logically laid out. There isn’t really even much of a narrative, except for you briefly describing what you’re doing through letters, but North is more concerned with establishing a sense of setting and tone that really trying to be narratively complex. I will say, though, that the last little puzzle before the closing room is pretty frustrating. I won’t say how, because I’m fairly certain it’s intentionally frustrating to try and make a point about the immigration allegory the game tries to comment on, but it really took me out of a game otherwise very well paced and plotted.
The Unsettled City
The premise of visiting a handful of locations and having your hand led through some easy puzzles (and I do mean easy, most always you’re told exactly where to go, who to talk to, or what to click in the letters), seems simple enough, but NORTH is absolutely one of the weirdest games I’ve ever played. The city is incredibly unsettling in a way that’s very hard to describe. There’s no violence. There’s nothing scary jumping out at you. Yet, the entire 45 minutes or so I played I felt extremely uncomfortable. You don’t really have a choice other than to play the game in one sitting (more on this coming later too), which you should do in a room by yourself in the dark. Again, you it isn’t a scary game. But I felt very, very alone and uneasy, and I loved it. I won’t spoil too many of the locations since the game is so short, but the church and doctor’s office are probably the strangest, looking like things straight out of a really bad acid trip. Despite the game’s graphics looking like something from the late 90s, the aesthetic- full of bright lights, dark voids, and strange architecture, are complemented by a really great electronic soundtrack that succeed in adding nicely to the established mood.
Unfortunately, for as much as I enjoyed the artistic side of the game, it’s got some pretty glaring technical issues. First, when entering some rooms (most notably the church, but some others as well) the framerate drops to about 20 fps. The mouse also gets laggy in these areas, which is frustrating. I’m not sure what the issue is since nothing that should be taxing my computer is happening, but it happened without exception every time I entered certain places. More egregious is the fact that you cannot save your game and continue later.
There isn’t a pause menu at all for doing things like adjusting brightness (useful in a dark game) or volume and pausing, meaning that if you close out of the game you have to start over entirely from scratch. Luckily I didn’t test if closing the game window restarted my game until I had already beaten it once, but if I were half way through I would have been incredibly mad. There isn’t even a way to close the game from inside of it, making your alt+tab out and close it in your toolbar. There are very strange decisions that I don’t really understand. I mean yeah, the game should be played in one sitting, but sometimes that’s just not an option, and making people restart is just silly.
A Strange One
Games like NORTH are one of the big reasons I love reviewing games. It gives me the opportunity to play small, strange titles that I probably wouldn’t have otherwise looked to much into. For all of its flaws, some of which are rather inexcusable, it does have a lot going for it. With smart writing, an incredibly off-putting atmosphere, and a low enough price and run time to fit into anyone’s schedule, NORTH is a little game that you’ll remember for a long time.
Unnerving, creepy atmosphere, nice music, short and sweet, solid ending narratively.
An oddly confusing objective towards the end, framerate issues, no saving or settings menu.